Authors: Stanley Elkin
Searches & Seizures
“I began this collection of short novels with no idea that this was what I was doing. Having just finished a full-size novel,
The Dick Gibson Show,
I thought it would be good to write a short story, something I had not attempted since 1964. I am a slow writer, and a nervous one, and the story I started I worked at diligently but without conviction for three months. Then a friend told me an anecdote about a friend of his who maintains a sort of zoo for his own amusement, whereupon I abandoned the story and undertook to write
The Making of Ashenden.
It got longer than I had expected, and when I finished it I saw that I had written a novella.
“But I was hooked; I had enjoyed writing the novella, enjoyed (I’m talking now about the writer’s always minimal pleasure) writing at that length more than at any other. Hence, when an interviewer asked me about my next book, on the spur of the moment I told him I was working on a collection of novellas. I wasn’t, but as soon as I said it I knew it was something I really wanted to do.
“The second to be written was
and, sadly, it was inspired by my attendance at the funeral of an aunt I loved very much. The events in the story have nothing to do with my aunt, but as I sat
in the bungalow in New Jersey where I had spent my summers when I was a boy, I found myself brooding about the relationship between the houses people live in and their bodies.
“The third story was
It was written in London, and it came to me virtually all at once when I saw the word “bailbondsman” in a sentence in a book; for some reason the word—I mean the
—frightened me, as it still does.
“Since this is a collection of novellas, I tried, once I knew what I was doing, to link the stories thematically—or, to be more precise, to link them through some sort of thematic progression, which explains my decision to arrange them as I have here. Thus, all three stories have certain characteristics in common. In each case the protagonist is a bachelor (at one time I had thought of calling the collection
and each is concerned in one way or another—though very differently—with death. Images recur from story to story, though these images are intended to shift their meanings with their contexts.
Go, little book…”
One for Phil and one for Bernie and one for Molly
HIS BUCK NIGGER comes running up calling my name. “Mist’ Main, Mist’ Main,” he’s yelling. He looks familiar but I can’t place him, so right there’s my clue. Because I know everybody I have had dealings with, their names and faces, their heights and weights, each identifying characteristic, every wart and all pimples, perfect pitch for human shape and their voices in my head like catchy tunes. What a witness I would make, a police artist’s dream with my eye for detail, the crease of their gloves and the shine on their shoes like so many square inches of masterpiece in an art historian’s noggin. Not “male Caucasian, mid-twenties, sandy hair and slightly built, five foot ten inches and between 130 and 135 pounds.” That’s given, that’s understood; I do that like the guess-your-age-and-weight man at the fair. But the weave of his trousers and the pinch of his hat, which hole he buckles his belt and the wave in his hair like the force number on the Beaufort scale. A marksman’s eye for his pupils and its length to a fraction of the cuff rolled back on his sweater. I have by heart the wrinkles on his trousers and know the condition of his heels like a butcher his fillets. Everything. The roller coaster of his flies when he sits, where his hands get dirty, which teeth need attention, the sunsets on his fingernails. Everything.
“Mist’ Main, Mist’ Main.”
But I forget. When it’s finished I forget, chuck it in the mind’s wastebasket as you’d throw away a phone number in your wallet when it no longer has meaning. Well, what am I? The rogues’ gallery? A computer bank? Must I walk around with sin like a stuffed nose? Of course I forget. But
familiar, tip-of-your-tongue, like at least you recognize the number is your own handwriting.
So what does it cost me to be polite? “Dat you, Rastus? Dat you, boy, sho ’nuff?”
“Mist’ Main, it’s Billy. Billy Basket.”
Or go along with him for a while? “Billy Basket, you old field hand, you fuckin’ cotton chopper, you. How you doin’, muthah? Gimme skin, gimme five, put ’er there, my man.” He sticks out his paw but I don’t take it. I don’t shake hands. I will handcuff myself to anyone regardless of race, creed or color because that’s business, but I won’t shake hands. I dislike holding men.
“I seen you cross the hall and I wanted to tell you hello and thank you.”
Court is about to be convened. “Sure thing,” I say, “see you later, alligator.”
“Don’t you remember me? You went my bail last year. You believed in me when they said I done that rape.”
“Yeah, sure. I try to see the good side in everybody. Now I remember.” I do. “Couldn’t place you there for a minute. Now I see the size of the cock on you it all comes back. You guys are really hung, you know that? Like pictures, like drapes in palaces. See you, kid. Next time you get into trouble. Now you know the way.”
I take off. Basket calls after me. “I wanted you to know in case you missed it in the papers,” he says as I slip into the courtroom, “they found the guy who done it. They cleared my name. I was innocent all along, just like you believed.”
Innocent? Guilty? What difference does it make? Six of one, half dozen of the other. As a matter of fact, innocence is bad for business, a pain in the ass. Stuff the jails I say, crowd them. Shove in the innocent with the guilty. I don’t want to see educational programs in the pens, I don’t want to know from rehabilitation. That shit knocks down recidivism. Shorter sentences, that’s something else, a different story entirely. Shorter sentences are
for business. That gets ’em back on the streets again, the villains and stickup guys. That’s what we call turnover, and I’m all for it. Billy Basket is making me late for the hearings. I might not get a good seat. Adams or Klein or Fetterman will be over the prospects I’ve spotted like the muggers.
“Go, go,” I tell him. “The sun’s shining, the parks are full of white girls with their heads on the grass and their skirts hiked. Near bushes they lie, tanning their titties. What the hell you doing here, you dark fool? Go. Run, Spot! Run in the park!”
I’m Alexander Main the Bailbondsman. I go surety. Generous as a godfather or an uncle in films, each day paying out pledge like a rope in the sea, flying my streamers of confidence. Like the bunting of anniversary my cracking pennants of assurance. Dealing in signature, notary’s round Braille, in triplicates engaged, fair copy, dotted line where my penciled x’s (never omitted: there, levitating like a phenomenon, a chipper fragment of askew alphabet above those two and a half inches of devastating dots at the bottom of the contract, drawing the attention, rubbing their noses in it, even the hard guys and two-time losers, even the saboteurs, and people finally out of aliases who haven’t used their real names in years—who can barely remember them but who use them now, you can bet) pull their names like trumps. Signed, sealed and deliverance.
I love a contract like the devil, admire the tall paper and the small print—I mean the
the lawful shapes and stately content. Forget word games, secret clause, forget hidden meaning and ambiguity, all those dense thickets of type where the fast ones lie like lost balls. Your forest-for-the-trees crap is myth, the sucker’s special pleading. I’ll fuck you in letters nine feet high if I’ve a mind. I beat no one with loophole. Everything spelled out, all clear, aboveboard as chessmen: truth in advertising and a language even the dishonest understand. No, I’m talking the
of the instrument, texture, watermark, the silk flourish of the bright ribbon, the legend perfected centuries (I’ll tell you in a moment about the Phoenicians), the beautiful formulas simple as pie, old-fashioned quid pro quo like a recipe in the family generations. My conditions classic and my terms terminal. Listen, I haven’t much law—though what I have is on my side, binding as clay, advantage to the house—but am as at home in replevin, debenture and gage as someone on his own toilet seat with the door closed and the house empty. I have mainpernor, bottomry, caution and hypothecation the way others might have a second language. I have always lived by
; do the same and we’ll never tangle assholes.
Well, it’s the blood. I had a cousin a usurer, an uncle in storm windows. An aunt bought up second mortgages, bad paper. Crap artists the lot, dealing in misunderstanding, leading folks on like bad daddies walking backwards in water with their hands out to kids wading inches beyond their reach. Not me, but we’ve something in common: that we take people’s word, I suppose, so long as it’s in triplicate. But not my style finally the cancerously compounding interest with repossession at the end of the rainbow. Hit them up front, I say, and be done with it. Not for me the jumped car and crossed wire, the hot shot at dawn or midnight. I eschew schlock, fingerprints on the screen of the burned-out TV, the old man’s greasy veronica where he’s dozed in the wing chair, all that wall-to-wall with its thinned nap where the weight’s come down like the lawn mowers of time. To hell with
houses surrendered after they’ve been lived in seventeen years. Junk, jetsam. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I have no sense of smell, except for the stinks I imagine in my head.
The Phoenicians. Lebanon and Syria now, Phoenicia that was. My people—I am Phoenician—wrote the first bailbond. (It’s “Ba’al” incidentally, from the Hebrew, not “bail.”) The notion that the system began in medieval England is false. What happened was that the Crusaders brought the practice back with them from the desert. Phoenician justice was swift: a trial immediately followed arrest; the suspect was taken before the judge or Lord (the Ba’al), evidence was heard and the man was punished or went free. But once a foreigner was arrested, a Canaanite. The charge was he’d fired a crop. The man denied it and said he had witnesses, relatives who had returned to Canaan and could prove that he’d had nothing to do with it. They would swear, he said, that he’d been with them miles from the scene at the time. Well, it would take time to get word back to Canaan that we were holding one of their lads. A messenger would have to be sent. A three-day camel trek, another few days to find the relatives and convince them to return, another three-day camel trek (“trek” is a Phoenician word; “track” comes from it, “race track,” “railroad track”) to get back, ten or eleven days in all. Now, there were no jails in Phoenicia. The concept of captivity didn’t come in until much later, a Hellenic idea. Where do you keep a guy like that, a guy accused of setting fire to an entire crop? Do you take him to your tent, an alleged incendiary? A man who might have burned fields, what could he do with canvas? There was no jail, only justice. If your eye offended they plucked it out, if your kick they tore your leg off. So where do you put a fellow up who claims he’s innocent?